November 22, 2010

An Interview with Christina Perri

Despite any accoutrements that have accompanied her seemingly overnight success, Christina Perri is at heart a resourceful songwriter, musician, and vocalist with a deep, long-held commitment to her craft.

While at work on her full-length debut (due in Spring 2011), the 24-year-old Philadelphia native has released a preview of sorts with the five-song EP, The Ocean Way Sessions. Underscoring influences of melodic pop and rootsy rock 'n' roll, the organic, live-in-the-studio set includes the track, “
Bang Bang Bang, as well as a solo-piano version of Jar of Hearts, the song that catapulted her to stardom after it was featured earlier this year on the U.S. television series, So You Think You Can Dance.

Jar of Hearts not only resonated with listeners, having sold over 400,000 copies to date, but also with the music industry's major labels, which inundated her with offers to sign a record deal.

I went and hung out with all of them, Perri explains, sounding disarmingly levelheaded, even methodical, about the life-changing experience. I played a couple songs for each one, went out to dinner, wined and dined and schmoozed with each one for a whole week in New York City, literally the week after it was on the show.

She ultimately signed with Atlantic Records where, she says, “
They were very bold and out loud and up front, which is totally my personality. I’m just so Italian and loud. I was at their office and they were yelling at each other in front of me. And I was like, Oh, my God, this is real. I feel like I can have a real relationship with them. We talk about everything. We put it all on the table. Everybody’s there for the greatest good and we just shout ideas at each other. It’s great.

The gambit has so far payed off in spades, as The Ocean Way Sessions debuted at Number One on the iTunes Pop Charts and currently tops the Billboard New Artist Chart. In addition, VH-1 has recognized Perri as one of its “You Oughta Know artists, a distinction bestowed in recent years to such artists as Corinne Bailey Rae, KT Tunstall, and Regina Spektor while on the cusp of their respective careers.

Each little milestone has been pretty amazing, Perri says. I can’t lie. It blows my mind all the time.

Where did your appreciation for songwriting come from? You've clearly got a good foundation and an ethic toward the craft.

I started writing songs when I was sixteen, but I think a lot of it has to do with what I was listening to growing up. My mom was very much into, like, Elton John and James Taylor, two amazing songwriters and performers. My dad was from Italy, and he would just listen to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. So I really had this cool foundation. Then I got insanely into the Beatles — I want to be a Beatles historian when I have gray hair; I’m a Beatles nerd — and to study them also as songwriters. So I definitely was off to a good start, I think, with my subconscious. When I started writing songs I emulated my favorites, so they were just simple little pop songs about love. From then it’s just grown. I haven’t stopped.

Are you still learning about the way you write, discovering new things you’re able to do or new insights you’re able to create?

Constantly. That’s one of my favorite parts about this whole process. I’m a very open person anyway, so I love learning all different things. I also love trying different things. Everybody has their own ideas and opinions. I’m always up for trying new stuff. I don’t necessarily like everything, but I’ll definitely try it, as far as sounds go or whatnot. I’m also learning stuff about me. I’m playing electric guitar now on one of my songs and I’m so stoked. I’ve never played electric guitar live. So I’m really green when it comes to experiences and firsts. I’m having all of my firsts right now.

How are you enjoying performing live?

I can’t believe I never did it before. I don’t know why I always had this kind of hang-up...mainly because I was a little frightened, but also I wasn’t sure where I was really headed. Now the fact that I’m playing shows, I feel like I’m supposed to do this forever. I just love it. I love performing. I love connecting with the audience. I love hanging out with people after the show, talking with them and hearing all their stories about how they connect to my music. It just feels so right; all of this feels perfectly timed and right.

Has your approach to songwriting changed at all since you signed with Atlantic?

A little bit, because prior to me getting signed I would sit in my pajamas in my bedroom and just kind of write songs whenever I wanted to, whenever I felt the urge to.... I’m not the only person with an opinion anymore. There’s a little more pressure, and definitely more listeners. So the process has changed a little bit, not completely because otherwise it wouldn’t be authentic to who I am.

How do you maintain that authenticity, going forward as a young artist, against other people’s wishes and expectations?

It’s really intense. I have to be completely sharp and I have to be right up on every decision that’s being made, because I am in major-label land and I am in VH-1 land, but I’m also kind of like an indie songwriter. And I’m kind of bridging the both of them, but the way I’m doing it is just [by] listening to my gut. It’s funny, because I have the leverage to do that, since I’ve been following my gut from day one, [to] do certain things like “Jar of Hearts” and the EP [which] just did really well. And that was all my gut instinct and my ideas.

For me, it’s not missing one thing. I’m definitely counseled in the decision-making for everything. If I’m nauseous — literally that’s how loud my gut is — if something doesn’t feel right, I get totally nauseous and I can’t sleep. I’m like, “Oh, my God, that’s just the wrong move.” Fortunately I have this label that, as designed as they are to pump out hits and be a business, they’re emotionally connected with me. I get to be honest with them and say, “Listen, I really don’t feel that that’s the way we should go. I don’t feel that that T-shirt design is very cool.” That’s the kind of stuff we go back and forth on, and in the end I’m happy with all the results so far. And that’s how it should be. It’s not getting lost. It’s not letting other people make decisions for me, and just doing what I do.

For more information on Christina Perri, please visit the artist’s official website.

November 10, 2010

An Interview with Marty Stuart

As one of country music’s most venerable artists and ambassadors, Marty Stuart wasn’t about to stand idly by while witnessing what he saw as the integrity of its heritage being compromised.

“The roots of country music were being ignored and disregarded,” says Stuart, a native of Philadelphia, Mississippi, “and it was slipping away. It seemed to me that the right thing to do was to play it.” That steadfast determination underscores his current album, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, its title not only referring to the hallowed Nashville room in which it was made but also to the history it holds.

“So much of country music’s legacy has been forged there," he says of Studio B, where such classics as Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors,” Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me, I’m Falling,” and Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” among hundreds upon hundreds of others, were recorded.

“And it was the first place I ever recorded as a kid with Lester Flatt,” Stuart adds, recalling when while barely a teenager in 1972 he landed his first job in music, playing mandolin in the bluegrass legend’s band. His tenure lasted until shortly before Flatt's death in 1979, after which he joined Johnny Cash’s band before ultimately setting out in the mid '80s to pursue a solo career.

Scoring hits like "Hillbilly Rock," "Burn Me Down," and "The Whiskey Ain't Working Anymore," the latter a duet with fellow maverick Travis Tritt, Stuart earned both commercial success and critical acclaim, including four GRAMMY Awards. Over time, however, his creative goals conflicted with those of an ever-changing country-music industry, forcing him to assess his purpose and relevance as an artist.

Where did you get the whole idea for Ghost Train, to stand your ground and say, “This is where I am now?"

In reality for me it started about ten years ago with a record I did called The Pilgrim, and I was kind of penalized for playing country music. I had one recording left on my contract with MCA Records at the time. I felt like The Pilgrim was probably going to do me in commercially for a moment, but I knew I had to take that walk because I had no choice in the matter in order to live with myself. So I made that record and it brought the curtain down on a decade-and-a-half commercial run, but it was time to do something different. You can only have so many radio songs. You can only have so many of the trinkets of hillbilly stardom. Then all of a sudden it becomes a hollow victory. That’s what it did for me. I wanted a deeper, more meaningful career for the back half of my life. So I started over. 

I’ve finally found my mark inside of this decade that I’ve been drifting through the woods looking for. It really is the deepest place in my heart, traditional country music. And country music needs traditional country music, in my opinion, now as much as ever before. It gives a sense of balance.

Is it disheartening that what is considered mainstream country today is essentially a tangent of country music?

Well, I think it’s in the ear of the beholder. A lot of listeners probably couldn’t put up with listening to the records I listen to, that I consider country music. Also, there are a couple kinds of country music that have come back up. I think that most everybody around this town thought the kind of music that Ghost Train represents was dead and gone except for some pioneer acts at the Opry. So I stood up and said, “I beg to differ!” I helped create the way country music sounds on the radio these days and I’m also encouraged to go back and help create it another way now.

Because you were part of that late ‘80s surge with Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle—

Right. And the job at that time was to get it away from fluffy, poppy records and get some grit back in it, put a rock ‘n’ roll flair to it and attract a younger audience. Well, we did that. And it just kept going and kept going and kept going ‘til, as Tom Petty says, “One day I woke up and it looked like bad rock ‘n’ roll with a fiddle.”

It seems that commercial radio and other outlets where most people get their music from pander to what’s popular rather than to what’s genuine and, for lack of a better term, good.

Absolutely. It’s the homogenization of America, which is a bigger subject. Then again, we can’t overlook the fact that a lot of those face-value-of-the-chart, in-the-moment country artists, they’re entertaining a lot of people out there. There’s a lot to be said for that. They’re taking care of that end of the business.

How has your approach to songwriting changed in recent years?

I think as life goes on the songs get more honest. That’s the thing I love about Ghost Train. Those songs feel to me like they’ve really been lived through, and they were. They were.

Going back to when you left Johnny Cash’s band to start your solo career, was it difficult to find a creative voice that was yours and not just a mirror of your influences?

Oh, without question. Looking back on some of that early work, I can see the glimmer of where it was headed, but there were two bands I was having to play myself out of the shadow of... The bottom line is the song. You’ve got to have the right song. You can be the coolest guy in town—have the best bus, the best band, the best everything—but until that song comes along that gives you a job with the masses, you’re stuck just being the coolest guy in town. “Hillbilly Rock” was the song that opened the door and gave me a reason to get a bus and a band and cowboy clothes to go out there and figure it out in front of everybody. And the hits started coming. We stumbled into a sound and we had a good run with it, but every time I had commercial success I tried to use it wisely to balance out a credible career along with a commercial career. I did not want to wind up being 50 years old, stuck on stage being a parody of myself just hoping everybody remembered my hits from any particular decade. That was not what I had in mind. 

Going back even further, when you were starting out as a teenager—which is a rebellious age to begin with and the ‘70s were a licentious time—what drew you to country music as opposed to, say, Led Zeppelin? What made country the music that moved you most?

The Beatles were exploding even further back in the early ‘60s when my light kind of came on musically, but the first two records I ever owned were Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash. Then there was The Porter Wagoner Show that I watched on Saturdays. Rock ‘n’ roll entertained my head but there was something about country music that touched my heart. When I was 12 years old I discovered Bill Monroe and my dad got me a mandolin. There wasn’t really a lot of difference from a Mississippi perspective between what Elvis did on “Mystery Train” or “Milkcow Blues” or what Bill Monroe was playing or what Flatt and Scruggs was playing; it was rock ‘n’ roll to me. Bluegrass had a lot of fire about it. So I unplugged my electric guitar, put it under the bed and began playing the mandolin. And getting offered a job with Lester, I mean it was beyond belief. It went from cutting yards one day and going to school and the next thing I knew I was on stage at the Grand Ole Opry playing with a cool band.

Even at that young age, did you appreciate who you were playing with?

, because I loved those guys. That’s all I wanted to do from the time I was nine years old and had my first band. I wanted to go to Nashville and play country music.

For more information on Marty Stuart, please visit the artist's official website.

(First published as An Interview with Marty Stuart on Blogcritics.)

November 01, 2010

An Interview with James Williamson of Iggy and The Stooges

Things are going pretty well these days for Iggy and the Stooges, who in addition to playing around the world to bigger audiences than ever were, this past March, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's a far cry from their ’73/’74 tour in support of arguably their most incendiary album, Raw Power, after which they’d become just another in a long line of rock ’n’ roll casualties. Their demise wasn’t pretty, either. As well as whatever turmoil and demons plagued its members, the band’s already edgy live performances had in the end turned adversarial with the audience and, as documented on the Metallic K.O. bootleg, dangerous.

With an uncertain future, insufficient funds, and no record label willing to compensate in good faith for any such assurances, Stooges frontman and guitarist, Iggy Pop and James Williamson, respectively, collaborated on a batch of songs that came to be known as Kill City. Written in 1975 though not released until 1977—once Pop had established some success as a solo artist—the album was a hit among fans, but it suffered from a disappointing, muddled sound.

Newly reissued, Kill City has been remixed and remastered by Williamson and GRAMMY-winning engineer Ed Cherney to achieve the kind of sonic quality the album always merited.

“This mix has really reached the full potential of those songs,” Williamson affirms.

“I think it was a really good effort on our part,” he says, continuing, “especially considering the circumstances. We were all pretty desperate at that point and we did it on the shoestring, but the songs come through and they sound good. I’ve been told numerous times that that’s actually a lot of people’s favorite album that we ever did.”

When you recorded Kill City—it wasn’t meant to be a Stooges album because you guys had disintegrated by that point—what were your intentions for it? Did you want it to sound different than a Stooges record?

It was essentially a demo to get a record deal. Whether or not the Stooges played on the record is kind of hard to say at this point. I mean, yeah, the band had broken up, but we also had a history of reforming it too. It could’ve been a Stooges album. It’s really impossible to say now. We wanted to get a record deal and, in those days, that [was] kind of the fundamental thing. It was all about selling records then, not about playing live. So that’s what we were going about trying to do.

Songs like “I Got Nothin’” have harmonies and melodic nuances. What informed that?

In the tail end of the Stooges in that phase, we had introduced background vocals into the set. We became the Singing Stooges. [Laughs] Prior to that the only guy singing was Iggy. We had Scott Thurston, who has a good voice, on keyboards. And we got me, who doesn’t have a good voice but likes to look like he’s singing. So we were kind of singing that way towards the end. It was kind of natural to want to put harmonies on the demo. And we had some good singers that were playing. We had Thurston again, and I also brought in the Sales brothers, who were my buddies. They have really good voices and they did some harmonies too on some of them.

Are there any plans to reissue Metallic K.O.?

None. No. We’ve never talked about that. I mean, I don’t know what the point would be because it’s a live recording and I don’t know how much we could change it. I have mixed feelings about that record anyway. It really was a bootleg. What happens on that record with all the bottles breaking and everything, it seems kind of cool, but by the same token I feel a little bit responsible for the antics that went on after that because, along with Altamont and some other stuff that was pretty dark in those days, I think the whole subsequent attitude became kind of a little violent and unnecessary in my opinion because people thought it was cool what the Stooges did.

In your acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony you said, “I don’t know of any other band that would’ve had me.” What distinguishes the way you approach the guitar?

Well, I’m more or less self-taught. I did have a neighbor who I was fortunate enough to move next to the summer before eighth grade. And he taught me how to play bar chords and all the basic stuff that you need, but I very quickly realized that it was easier for me to write my own stuff than it was to learn how to play other guys’ stuff. Even though I did a fair amount of that too, from the very beginning I always wrote my own stuff. It didn’t sound like much back then, but it always had a certain characteristic. I liked to play lots of very fast chord changes and things like that, and just make a bunch of noise. That’s kind of how my style evolved.

When I first met Iggy, actually, I had my guitar with me and played him one of my songs. And I think that stuck with him. The trouble with it is that style, it works for me, but it’s difficult to work with a band, number one, if you have more than one guitar player, because there’s no air in there for someone else to come in and do something. It’s just me.

There’s no Keith Richards/Ronnie Wood sort of tapestry.

Right, exactly. There’s nowhere for anybody to do that. It’s also a little challenging for a singer because usually people give the singer some air too, and he’s got his place in there. But I don’t give any of that—in most songs. I’ve learned to be a little better. I mean, you can’t imagine me playing with Bob Seger, can you? It would just be… Well, they’d never hire me. [Laughs] And [it’s] the same with most bands. It was only the Stooges who saw the possibilities in that. I really have to hand it to Iggy because it was only Iggy who could make enough sense out of it to help me mold it into a song that he could actually sing and it had a structure.

In the past couple years there’s been a shift in perception of the band. What do you attribute that to? You’ve essentially grown into your legend.

It’s a really, really interesting thing and I can’t claim that I have all the answers, but I think a lot of it is that at the time when we were around, all of our stuff was ours. We created it; it came from within us. We liked it and we didn’t care whether anybody else did. There really was no sound like we had and there was no style like we had. I think the term’s been said before; there was no vocabulary for what the Stooges did at that point. But later on, people imitated us. So over the years their vocabulary was developed and people heard it enough that they became accustomed to the sound of it. And now all that stuff, Raw Power or Kill City or whatever, sounds contemporary to people because it reflects on all the other people who imitated us. I think that’s a lot of it.

The other part of it is we have credibility because we never sold out. Essentially we maintained ourselves in the way that we always were. We played our music the way we liked to play it. And I think what has happened is that the mainstream was not able to push us down and so they basically assimilated us. So now we’re part of the overall thing even though we’re kind of the most unusual people to be there.

— Iggy and the Stooges photo credit: Heather Harris

— James Williamson photo credit: Heather Harris

— Iggy Pop/James Williamson photo credit: Susan Carson

For more information, please visit the official Iggy and the Stooges website.